Bulletin 11 - July 1980: Journey to Umm Az Zamul, Asab and the Liwa

Journey to Umm Az Zamul, Asab and the Liwa

by Tony Harris

In December 1977 I made an interesting journey around the eastern half of Abu Dhabi emirate. I describe the route below in case anyone else wishes to follow it and because it illustrates the speed of development in the area.

The route taken was via Al Ain, Ain al Sukhna, Zakher and al Wijann (pronounced Wuggan). Here the asphalt surface ended about 48 miles from the center of Al Ain and the first large Bedouin settlement could be seen. Al Wijann was a large collection of modern breeze-block houses, perhaps 100 in number, on the site of a former barasti settlement.

Thereafter, the road was basically rolled sand, stiffened with "katch" (the decayed sabkha which forms the base of many desert valleys). Leveling work continued for many miles. The track, which was very fast, continued through several other small settlements, and one large one at Mudessis, 66 miles from Al Ain. The Bedouin of the area and some Omani tribesmen have settled in these new townships.

After Mudessis, the road continued almost due south for another 45 miles and became more spectacular with broad sihs or valleys running east-west divided by great sand ridges. About 116 miles from Al Ain, the track forked with the left hand route going on to Qusaiwira and the right hand one to Mender (both are names of oil bearing structures). The road thus far was easily navigable by car.

Just before the fork, by a water well on the right hand side of the road, there was a track to the left to the disputed wells at Umm as Zamul, the turning point on the Oman/Abu Dhabi/Saudi frontier. This lies about five miles east of the main track. One well could clearly be seen though it was filled in, and there was a barrel filled with cement which was left by Lord Buckmaster and his astro-surveying party in 1964. The area is now quiet and eminently suitable for a night's camp as the main oil road to Mender has rendered the old track to Umm az Zamul obsolete. There was evidence that a large Bedouin encampment had recently been established at Umm az Zamul and their tents and equipment were partly sheeted down and partly scattered through the sand. In the area around, our party saw a hare, a large saker falcon, some species of wheatear, and a pair of hoopoe larks.

At Mender, the French company, Sea and Land, were completing the drilling program at Mender 3 (Rig GD 4). The well had been drilled to over 8,000 feet (into the Jurassic) about one-half kilometer west of the earlier well at Mender 2, the "Christmas tree" of which was close by the track. On 15 December, the day of our visit, crude from the oil bearing structure at 3,000 feet was allowed to flow into the desert and was flared to test the flow rate. Mr. John Rathbone, the free lance photographer, was on hand to film the flaring for a documentary which ADPC was now making about exploration work in the desert.

From Mender, the track runs along several sihs towards Asab oilfield (it is 88 miles from Mender to Asab). Parts were extremely flat and fast, other sections have difficult and involved steep climbs over soft sand into a neighboring sih, though the route was well prepared and in regular use. The road passed the old Qusaiwira airstrip and then, at about 28 miles, swung northwards. This was an important turn-off as the main road goes straight on parallel to the Saudi border, and was still under construction a few miles further on. This is part of the Oil Minister's plan for a road all the way round the Abu Dhabi emirate. As the track proceeded northwards the sand ridges got smaller and the last 20 miles or so into Asab were over well indurated sand plains. There was little difficulty finding Asab, even though the tracks wandered around the desert. Flares and smoke could be seen for 50 miles.

We then checked in at Asab camp. (It is worth remembering that when in the region of desert oil camps, travelers should always check in. A record is kept of every vehicle out in the sands and search parties are sent out very soon, within an hour or two, of vehicles failing to arrive.) From Asab, we drove down southwards between the line of water injection wells (58, 53 and 57) and the producing wells (6 and 12 -- all clearly marked) and met the main easterly track into the Liwa at Wasat. This is a small settlement and palm garden snuggling under the southern face of a large dune. From there, the track proceeded to Tharwaniya, the first Liwa settlement on this route. The distance from Asab is about 15 miles and was not particularly difficult. From Tharwaniya, tracks led off in several directions to other Liwa settlements.

The Liwa presented a big change from what I had seen there as recently as March 1977. Electricity had come to all the main settlements: generators were dotted about the villages and electric cables and television aerials were much in evidence. In addition, increasing number of Baluchi laborers were stationed in the Liwa to develop the agriculture of the region. Significantly, several valleys had date gardens laid out in squares and irrigated by pumps. We saw laborers squirting water about as if it was in limitless supply, under the slip-faces of the dunes out in the hot winds of summer and the flying sand were being neglected in favor of Abu Dhabi Municipality's new methods. In some places, other plants were being cultivated in neat rows and we saw a few other species of trees and even some vegetables; none of them seemed to be thriving.

Sir Alexander Gibb's survey of water resources of the area carried out in April 1969 concluded that the agricultural potential of the Liwa was very low. Abu Dhabi Municipality is bent on proving that judgement wrong. It remains to be seen whether large-scale pumping increases the salinity to a point where the irrigation become self-defeating. It is no accident that the early Abu Dhabians concentrated on growing date palms in the traditional manner. Even more strange is the fact that in modern Abu Dhabi there is little use for dates though, thanks to the Municipality's enthusiasm, they are being grown here in greater numbers than ever before.

After a night spent at Surayt, we drove on towards the west. At Nimayl, we saw the biggest evidence of change so far -- a "katch" track being driven through all the main settlements and fast advancing eastwards. An army of bulldozers were flattening a dune on the way into a valley. From there, a smooth track stretched westwards through Qurmidah, Muzairi', Zafir, al Mariya, Qutuf, and Rudum (past the army camp and airstrip) and on to al Mariya al Gharbiya.

The easiest road back to Abu Dhabi leave Muzairi' northwards and for the first 12 miles is, as I recalled it, a well used route over the dunes. We then saw the most impressive sight of the journey. The Municipality had mustered eight bulldozers abreast to push over a huge dune and fill a valley. Behind them, in a dead straight line to the north, stretched a new road, deal level and 75 yards wide. Ten miles north of that, the tar laying machines were at work and there followed 17 miles of smooth asphalt to Bida Zayed and thence on to Abu Dhabi.

Main Distances: Miles Kilometers
Al Ain to Umm az Zamul 115 207
Umm az Zamul to Asab 95 171
Asab to Surayt 33 59
Surayt to Muzairi' 12 22
Muzairi' to beginning of the asphalt (December 1977) 22 40
Muzairi' to Bida Zayid 40 72
Bida Zayid to Tarif 31 57
Tarif to Abu Dhabi 78 140


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